Alanaise Goodwill | Stó:lō Shxweli and Resilience
2021, Health, Indigenous Voices, PFL 2020-2021, President's Faculty Lectures
The President's Faculty Lectures
“Everything is connected”: A summary of “Stó:lō Shxweli and Resilience” with Alanaise Onischin Goodwill
By Chloe Sjuberg, Communications Coordinator, SFU Public Square
Content warning: references to suicide, mental illness and colonial violence, including residential schools, are made in this article and video recording.
In the very first moments of her President’s Faculty Lecture, “Stó:lō Shxweli and Resilience,” Alanaise Onischin Goodwill shared a photograph of a snowy, sun-dappled mountain—Lhílheqey, the Halq'eméylem name for Mount Cheam. She couldn’t help beaming as she described it as her “absolute favourite mountain on the planet.”
This heartfelt energy suffused the rest of the evening, as Alanaise shared her work on Indigenous land rights, youth mental health, and decolonizing research by leading with Indigenous community knowledge. In this deeply nourishing lecture, she acknowledged experiences that may resonate with all of us who live on this land, and to all of us affected by mental illness or suicide, while centring Stó:lō knowledge and experiences in the work to protect Stó:lō land and people.
Alanaise is a registered psychologist, an assistant professor in SFU’s Counselling Psychology program, and an Ojibway woman from the Sandy Bay First Nation, which is in Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba. However, she was born, raised and currently lives and works on Stó:lō land in the Fraser Valley. “This is not my ancestral homeland, but it is my home,” she explained. “I was raised to be Ojibway, but I was born and raised in Stó:lō territory and have lived in the active presence of Stó:lō people my whole life.”
This concept of active presence was central to the work she shared. Although “resilience” was a key theme in both her lecture and this lecture series as a whole, she proposed an alternative to that term: “survivance,” used by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor to describe an active, ongoing, land-based Indigenous practice that goes beyond "loss, victimhood or mere survival” from the traumas of colonization.
The work Alanaise presented in her lecture was a project called Youth on the Land, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). She was part of a community-based research team with the Stó:lō Nation and the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV). They ran camping trips for Stó:lō youth, giving them an opportunity to connect with Elders and their ancestral land and culture. The audience got a glimpse into the joy and richness of these camps through a short video set to music from the Sts’ailes Singers.
The overarching goal of the project was to prevent youth suicide through Stó:lō concepts of land-based healing. Alanaise acknowledged that suicide is intensely painful and personal to many, and can be triggering to discuss, but that it is also important to do so in service of destigmatization. “I’m invested in normalizing how we speak about human suffering and despair. These experiences should not remain hidden,” she said.
The research team was committed to ensuring that their work was guided by Stó:lō worldviews, concepts and practices, including four principles in particular that Alanaise wove into her lecture:
- Friends working together (osi:yaya yoyes)
- Reciprocal knowledge (ooyeqelhtel)
- Looking back is looking forward (okw’okw’estswitsem tl’os lexw kw’ets kw’e ts)
- Everything is connected (omekw stam ilileq’tol)
Alanaise explained how these principles were central to her team’s work. For example, the research team operated as “friends working together” outside of institutional hierarchies. Instead, she said, “All of us came to the work as equals, with different tools to offer.”
Conventional leadership structure was flipped on its head. The principal investigators, like Alanaise, who were coming from academic institutions, looked to the knowledge of the research assistants: community members including Nikki LaRock, a band councillor for the Stó:lō community of Yakweakwioose, who also provided opening and closing remarks for this lecture.
Alanaise and Nikki also credited the team’s success to their shared personal goal of protecting the younger generation from the causes of suicide. “No one held themselves higher or lower than anyone,” Nikki said. “We all sat as equals, we all listened and shared our stories, and we were all in it with our hearts to do what we could for the youth.”
With the initial CIHR project funding, the research team built programming infrastructure that stayed with the Stó:lō Nation, so the community has been able to continue the work even after the original project wrapped up. The project was not just limited to academia-imposed research timelines and funding periods, and this supported their commitment to the Stó:lō principle of reciprocal knowledge.
“I see that as reciprocity in that what was given was durable and useful,” Alanaise explained. “If you’ve done good reciprocal research, you’ve left the community richer.”
Standing at the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and psychology
Alanaise reflected on her position at multiple crossroads—of her ancestral roots with one Indigenous people and her lifetime spent on the lands of another; of her academic background in psychology and her deep ties to both Ojibway and Stó:lō teachings. She reflected, “I’m standing in the middle—I’m not Stó:lō, but I am Indigenous. I believe in the spiritual teachings from the land, but I also know of the research and literature on risk assessment and suicide. I also knew these models weren’t serving Indigenous people very well.”
Giving Stó:lō youth access to these healing resources through the Youth on the Land project was what those in the public health field might call “primary prevention,” Alanaise explained—but it was important for her and her team to reframe this approach through Stó:lō principles. “For us, it meant giving people the tools and opportunities to engage with the land and each other, as a way of gathering the medicine that will keep them safe.”
While it didn’t feel appropriate to impose western psychological theories on a community-based research team committed to centring Stó:lō knowledge, she did observe connections between Stó:lō principles and one particular model taught in SFU’s Counselling Psychology program: Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicide (outlined in his 2005 book Why People Die by Suicide).
Joiner proposes that the desire for suicide can arise from feeling “perceived burdensomeness” and “thwarted belongingness.” Alanaise sees the Stó:lō concept of “reciprocal knowledge” as disrupting that sense of perceived burdensomeness. When you see yourself as part of a circle, where each person contributes what they have and know, giving back as much as they’re receiving, you can never be a burden. And creating collectives of “friends working together” can overcome feelings of thwarted belongingness.
Seeing oneself as part of such a collective—which can include not just people but the land and animals too—comes back to the Stó:lō principle that “everything is connected.” This is also central to the lecture’s titular concept of shxweli.
What is shxweli?
The Stó:lō concept of shxweli—a life force present in all living things—was central to the land-based resilience the project team sought to share with the youth. To describe shxweli, Alanaise drew on stories told by Stó:lō scholars like Jo-Ann Archibald, author of Indigenous Storywork, and historian Sonny McHalsie. “The best way I know to teach these concepts is with stories,” Alanaise said, drawing on the idea that “looking back is looking forward.”
Alanaise shared a video in which McHalsie explains how this life force connects Stó:lō people to the land: “Shxweli is inside us, it’s in our ancestors, it’s in the rocks, it’s in the animals. It’s what connects us to them and creates our responsibility to take care of everything that belongs to us.”
Shxweli can also refer to living spirits embedded in natural landforms: ancestors transformed into stone long ago by Xá:ls, the Stó:lō transformer figure, as cautionary lessons to the Stó:lō. The sites where these transformations occurred are sacred places known as “transformer sites.” (Alanaise admitted that when she first learned about these transformer sites as a child attending Seabird Island School in Agassiz, B.C., she imagined them as characters from the Transformers cartoon show.)
Sharing these concepts of shxweli and transformer sites with the youth was perhaps the most innovative contribution of the Youth on the Land project, said Alanaise. Over the course of the project, the team came to recognize Stó:lō land rights and title as a central part of the work: “We were developing the next generations of leaders to know why and how to protect their land.”
Since the transformer sites hold stories and knowledge dating back well before colonization, they are part of what Wenona Hall, a UFV Indigenous studies professor on the research team, called the Stó:lō’s “living constitution.”
Teaching Stó:lō youth about their long-standing rights, constitution and ties to their land not only improves their individual wellbeing by giving them a sense of belonging and connection. It helps them find a sense of collective purpose as they take up the role of land protectors for present and future generations, encouraging them to practice “survivance” by participating in that active presence on their own land.
Alanaise described a powerful feeling she experienced in certain places which was almost inexplicable until she learned about shxweli. She believes this can be a universal human experience—imagine driving through our beautiful B.C. landscapes, she said, and feeling drawn to a certain place along the road that makes your heart beat a little faster, compelling you to stop your car, get out and bask in that sense of connection with a living presence in the earth.
Maybe, like Alanaise, you have an “absolute favourite mountain” of your own.
During the question and answer period, SFU president Joy Johnson asked Alanaise how people could engage further with the themes she’d shared. Alanaise’s primary suggestion was to learn about Stó:lō land by visiting it in person (if and when provincial health travel restrictions allow, of course, especially considering Indigenous communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19).
For example, in Chilliwack, the former site of a residential school has been transformed into buildings dedicated to Stó:lō community services, cultural revitalization and more. Here you’ll find a free, self-guided “walking curriculum” of billboards that tell the stories and the Halq’eméylem names of the transformer sites and other local landforms. A variety of guided tours are also available, including some hosted by Sonny McHalsie.
In terms of exploring and emphasizing an active Indigenous presence on the land at SFU, one audience participant suggested visiting the Mountain Protectors’ Watch House (kwecwecnewtxw) on Burnaby Mountain and learning about their work to monitor the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on unceded Coast Salish territories.
Alanaise also cited and recommended the work of scholars, educators, authors and artists including the aforementioned Jo-Ann Archibald; Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (who in 2020 became the first Native American artist to have a painting purchased by the U.S. National Gallery of Art); and her colleagues at SFU including Jeannie Morgan, Mark Fettes and Gillian Judson (particularly her concept of the Walking Curriculum).
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